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Obon in Japan: 3 Films About Love, Loss and Carrying On

Loved ones and treasured traditions never really disappear as long as we hold them in our hearts.

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Among painful experiences, losing people and things that are most precious to us is right at the top. To soothe the heart as well as honor the dead, Japan celebrates the festival of Obon.

Traditionally held around the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar (mid-August in the Gregorian calendar), Obon involves a number of special rituals.

A small welcoming fire or lantern, called mukaebi, greets the spirits of ancestors and guides them home, where they will find food and drink placed on a shoryodana altar for their enjoyment. For three days, the living and the dead spend time together before the spirits are guided back to the spiritual world, this time with a small fire or lantern called okuribi.

In some areas, shoryoma — a cucumber horse and an eggplant cow — are made. The horse speeds spirits home to the family, while the cow slowly and safely carries them back to the afterworld.

One of Obon’s most important tasks is ohakamairi — a visit to the family grave. The grave is cleaned, flowers or sakaki leaves are presented, and ancestors are greeted.

The best part of Obon? That would be the lively Bon festivals, which involve food and games, and dances to welcome and send off the spirits.

Nowadays, Obon is mostly considered summer’s major vacation period, with some of the old traditions disappearing. Many companies provide several days off, allowing workers to return home or, increasingly, travel elsewhere.

As we’ll see in the following movies, however, even though society has in many cases moved on from the old ways, the Japanese still feel the pull of loved ones and old traditions.

1. A Song From Home (盆唄), 2018

Futaba, Fukushima Prefecture: home to reactors five and six of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. In the aftermath of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster of March 2011, all residents of Futaba were evacuated, and the town was classified as part of the disaster’s exclusion zone.

With the community divided, the town’s traditions, including the Futaba Bon festival, were in danger of dying. But across the ocean, traditions from Fukushima Prefecture continued in Hawaii, home to many descendants of emigrated Japanese people.

In this documentary, a group of taiko drum musicians from Futaba travel to Hawaii to share their culture and Obon traditions in the hope that they will continue. As the film follows the Futaba residents around Hawaii, it also explores the history of Japanese culture on the islands.

Cast:Futaba Town in Fukushima’s people, Kimiko Yo, Akira Emoto, Jun Murakami, Soko Wada and others (voice actors)
Director:Yuji Nakae

2. Journey To The Shore (岸辺の旅), 2015

Yusuke has been away three years when he suddenly returns home to his wife, Mizuki, and informs her that he’s dead, having drowned in the sea. In those three years, he’s been travelling across Japan to meet her, spending time with a number of people in similar situations — caught between the world of the living and the world of the dead — along the way.

At Yusuke’s request, Mizuki joins him as he goes on the same journey, but in reverse. Together, they revisit the small towns and friends from Yusuke’s travels, getting to know each other again as they go. As Mizuki meets each of Yusuke’s friends, she — as well as the friends — move a little closer to accepting their new reality.

But alas, all journeys have to end, even if we don’t want them to.

Cast:Eri Fukatsu, Tadanobu Asano, Masao Komatsu
Director:Kiyoshi Kurosawa

3. Nagasaki: Memories Of My Son (母と暮せば), 2015

It’s August 9th, 1948: Three years have passed since the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. Nobuko, an aging widow who lost both her sons in the war, keeps herself busy — and avoids thinking of her dead loved ones — working as a midwife. But she’s having a hard time accepting the death of her younger son, Koji, a medical student killed in the bombing.

During a visit to the family grave on the anniversary of Koji’s death, Nobuko pledges to finally move on. Not long after she returns home, however, Koji — or rather his ghost — walks through the door.

Over a number of visits, Nobuko and Koji reminisce about their days together and the people they loved, including Machiko, Koji’s girlfriend before his death. But their happy days can’t possibly last forever.

Cast:Sayuri Yoshinaga, Kazunari Ninomiya, Haru Kuroki
Director:Yoji Yamada

When we lose someone or something, it can feel as though our hearts will never be the same again. But as we can see in these movies, hearts do heal, and the people and things we love live on inside us.

Text by Helen Langford-Matsui

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